I listen to a lot of dharma talks, and one of my favourite things about them is at the end, when the floor is opened to the audience. Along with questions, people share their insights, reflections and personal practice experiences. This time is often referred to as ‘calling on the wisdom of the room’.
In a recording I have of a talk by Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel on bearing witness, a woman shares how she has come to see that the technique is not the practice. When I first listened to this talk, this reflection from the audience jumped out at me. It was one of those lightbulb moments — I genuinely felt like something that had been in the dark was suddenly clear and well illuminated.
For the first few years of my practice, I was all about the technique. I really thought, if I could just get it right, then everything would be okay. This is the attitude of the human realm, one of six realms used in Buddhism to symbolize the mental states we get into that trap us in cyclical suffering.
The mentality of the human realm is of seeking ground through the false belief that we can find stability in external circumstances, rather than within our own minds. When we sit in meditation, we can become convinced that our mind will find this stability as long as our posture is good, we are in the right headspace, and that we have time for it. Oh yes, and that there are no distractions — no loud noises, nothing left undone on our to-do list, no one else around, or only other people who are also sitting very quietly.
Even meditation can be used to reinforce our habitual tendency to seek comfort. We might understand that samsara is inescapable, but then we seek escape in the form of ‘perfect’ meditation. We get it stuck in our heads that meditating is the solution to the fundamental groundlessness of our experience.
Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa famously said:
“The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is, there’s no ground.”
When I first heard this quote, it blew my mind a little. I didn’t like it because I didn’t want to believe the fundamental nature of things was groundless. I really wanted to find the solution to samsara while still living my very human life with very human ideas of justice and fairness. I felt like there had to be some ground, surely, because sometimes things were okay.
Over the years, however, as I’ve worked at being less hung up on the technique, this teaching has actually helped me understand practice far better. This teaching is not telling us that stability doesn’t exist—it’s telling us that stability is about our state of mind.
Running around in Dharma circles, as I do, I often hear people refer to challenges and difficulties as moments of ‘groundlessness’. It becomes a habit to pepper our vocabulary with the terms we pick up on our practice path, and just like any habit, this should be examined closely. Using ‘groundlessness’ as the way we describe experiences we are challenged by shows a disconnect between the teaching and our understanding of is. Remember, Chögyam Trungpa didn’t say a lack of ground was a problem. He said that was the good news.
A fear of falling is not about the fall itself. The fear is that we’re going to land, and when we do, that will hurt. When it comes to the physical world, the tangible state of our reality, hitting the ground from even a short distance is not usually a pleasant experience.
Imagine you are falling, and at first, it’s terrifying because you are expecting to connect with something. But then you realise there is nothing to hit. There is no stopping. There is only continuous, constant, motion.
There is no ground.
There is no security blanket, or net, or any static, fixed perfect moment. There is only impermanence and change, constantly. Realising there is no ground is an experience of liberation. It liberates us from the fear we have about change, about transitions, about being thrown off balance.
External circumstances are, and will always be, groundless. Sometimes it’s more obvious than others. When a teacher’s transgressions come to light, it can feel like we have been thrown into the midst of a raging storm. When a community is dealing with the fall out that comes of leaders abusing their authority, ‘groundless’ seems the best term to describe what is going on. When we are reckoning with how someone meant to be embodied wisdom and compassion could sexually, emotionally and mentally abuse people, it is very de-stabilizing.
But it wasn’t that the situation had ground and suddenly lost it. We were all, always, already falling. It’s just that this new information has thrown our mind into a panic about the free-fall. And this isn’t to say that we won’t or shouldn’t feel buffeted — but how much we flail and panic will depend upon our practice and how much we have truly been working to stabilize our own minds, rather than just perfecting our posture.
Another teaching from Chögyam Trungpa is “Chaos should be regarded as extremely good news.”
Groundlessness and chaos are pointing to the same thing: The very nature of being alive is to be interdependent, and to be interdependent is to be subject to unpredictability and change. If everything always went our way, we wouldn’t need a practice. If everything was smooth and easy, there would be no point to the dharma.
It is precisely when we become aware that there is no ground that practice is most crucial. This is the time to do the work, to examine our mind and watch the way it responds to more obvious moments of chaos. This is when things are rich and we have the opportunity to meet our edges and see what wisdom can be found there, to practice stabilizing so we can see the freedom of having nowhere to land.
Impermanence, chaos, groundlessness — whatever you choose to call it, this is our place of practice. The good news is the opportunity it gives us to work on stabilizing our minds.
Kaitlyn Hatch is a writer, artist, podcast producer, philosopher, and designer, and has been a dharma practitioner since 2008. She is queer, non-binary, and disabled, and has Métis and British ancestry.
She has most often practiced with Shambhala and in the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, although she considers herself a ‘rogue practitioner.’ Her primary teacher is Pema Chödrön, and she is currently enrolled as a student in the Upaya Zen Center’s Buddhist chaplaincy training program.